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Shane Warne in shape to shoulder latest burden
- ‘A performer with a responsibility’

If you make your way out of the centre of Melbourne, down the Esplanade and on to the Golden Mile, which links the suburb of Brighton to the sea, you are in Shane Warne country. It is here that the golden boy lives with his wife Simone and their three children.

The Warne family moved recently, only a few blocks, but the previous home had reached tourist attraction status — i.e., coachloads were pulling up and gawping. The straw that broke the cricketer’s back came when he awoke late one morning, opened the front door to collect the papers, and was asked to smile for the cameras. It might not be Hollywood but, in its own small way, it is that sort of thing.

When Warne dived to his right in a recent day/night match against England and dislocated the nation’s most prized shoulder, Australia shuddered. He was not always a favourite son but he surely is now.

“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” a muted Warne said 48 hours after the drama was captured live on prime time television. “I’m not going to rush back. I made that mistake after my last operation, so if I’m not ready I won’t make myself available. What happens will happen but I am remaining positive and working all the hours there are on fitness and physio to see if I can make my World Cup dreams come true.”

At 33, the age that Richie Benaud gave it away for a career in journalism, Warne is still dreaming. He is addicted to the stage which first seduced him back in 1991. “I used to hang out at the beach or play footie.” Australian Rules and he was good at it, too. “Cricket six hours a day was boring until I got picked for a Test. That did it. At 22 I was hooked and have been in love with the game ever since.”

Pou ring a glass of Shane Warne Chardonnay — yup, there is a wine collection to go with numerous other investments and endorsements — on the colonial terrace of his splendid house, the sparkle was back in those hazel-green cat-like eyes which cut through their inquisitor like lasers.

The 1999 World Cup in England cemented Warne’s place in the pantheon. He emerged from a dark period of injury and insecurity to claim Man-of-the-Match awards in both the semi-final, which was all but lost until a long-time nemesis conned four wickets for next to nothing in 10 mesmeric overs out of the broken-hearted South Africans, and in the final against Pakistan.

“Look, I love the big occasion. This next World Cup will probably be my last which is why it means so much to me. And I love the pressure. To me dealing with pressure is the true test of mental toughness. It is about blocking out everything — the size of the event, the crowd, the situation of the game, the threat of the opponent — establishing what you need to do at that precise moment and then being able to execute it. Pressure is about thinking clearly enough to give your best performance. If you do that and fail, well, there you go, there’ll be other days.”

This is the gib of a young man in an older man’s shirt. That bleached blond hair, cut tight and heavily gelled, recedes a touch now but a gold earring bounces around in the evening sunlight and Armani jeans cling to a newly slim and athletic figure.

“Yeah, gone from a 36-inch waist to a 32 in nine months mate,” which brings out that most distinct and brightest of smiles. Why' “I wanted to play longer and feel better so I cut out the carbos — you know the pizza, the chips, the beer — and hit the gym. Feel fantastic.” He shed more than two stone, moving his long-time coach and a mentor, Terry Jenner, to exclaim: “Look, no ass, how can you bowl without an ass'”

Warne thinks he is back to his best. “In figures this last year is my most successful ever and I’ve scored runs, too!” Jenner reckons he is somewhere near that best, if without that extreme and hypnotic drift from off to leg which made the big-spinning leg-break (back from leg to off, the Gatting ball) a virtuoso performance of its own. “Nowadays Shane is more likely to aim at the rough outside leg-stump rather than let the ball drift into it,” Jenner says. “It’s a subtle difference but one which might allow a quality batsman to line him up easier.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” replies an impish Warne, “it’s all part of the mystery, of the plan to create illusions. Is something happening or isn’t it' Has Warney got a new ball, the slider say, or hasn’t he' I’ll let the batsman decide.”

He was interesting about plans, saying that he never bowled to any batsman without one. “Gotta have a plan mate, otherwise you’ve no chance.” How many lesser cricketers think like that' “Lots of bowlers are taught to aim at a spot on the pitch or at a stump but I reckon that creates tension and pressure. I concentrate on what shot I want the batsman to play, which dictates my line and length. And I keep my grip on the ball very loose, always. You have to be relaxed to perform at your best and therefore do all you can to release tension.”

Missing the Boxing Day Test hurt Warne for the MCG is a second home. His oxygen comes from the vast stands which chant his name and echo his every ooh and aah in the sharing of the enemy’s torment. On the pavements, friend and fan stop to bow and chat. On the roads they hoot and honk. Mind you, they can’t miss him. The boy racer had a Formula One exhaust fitted to the third love of his life, a Ferrari 360 Spider that shares the driveway with a couple of BMW’s. “Love cars mate, just love ’em.” And clothes, he loves clothes, too. And music, loves music.

He is an addictive personality, no question. On the golf course — “love golf mate, love it” — he will wring every conceivable advantage out of you, give nothing and expect everything back. The trouble is, he “loves” pressure so those three footers don’t bother him much.

Nick Faldo was riveted to meet him at a dinner in Melbourne last month.

“Would you sign this napkin for my son with a message of encouragement or something, he’s a wicketkeeper,” Faldo asked. Warne obliged and wrote an essay. “Wow, thanks” said Faldo, wide-eyed.

It is a funny thing but people who have not met Warney do not expect to like him. They expect something gauche and self-satisfied and when they don’t get it they say “wow” just as Faldo did. He was a revelation during his season with Hampshire two years ago and has signed for more, as well as the captaincy, this summer.

Mike Taylor, Hampshire’s marketing manager during Warne’s last stint, said he had worked or played with all the stars from Barry Richards in the late Seventies, to the Gowers and Marshalls of the Nineties. None, he said, had been easier to deal with or given a more generous face to sponsors and spectators alike.

“I loved Hampshire. No politics, no hidden agenda just mateship, support and appreciation. Sure, the captaincy will be tougher but it’s a different sort of challenge for me, a different pressure from international cricket. There is less scrutiny for a start.”

“I have this desire to get a team to think like and play like champions. I’d like to develop a culture and spirit that will live on long after I’ve gone. The captain’s job is to know his men and get every one of them working out how to become the best possible cricketer they can.”

He had a hiccough in England when he was involved in a lewd phone call with a girl who sold the story to a tabloid. “Yeah, stupid. You make a choice, you cop the consequences but I can’t change the past. Some things I’d handle differently, of course, but basically I haven’t got any regrets in my life. I’ve matured a lot, definitely, and Simone and I are stronger now than ever.”

He added that for the past three or four years he had not enjoyed being Shane Warne, that the glitz and the expectation had got the better of him.

But now, at last, he felt comfortable in his own skin. “It’s good being me again.”

If sport can embrace genius, Warne has it. Probably he is the most naturally gifted cricket player alive. Unquestionably, he is among the best to watch.

He feels there is a career, with many wickets to come, still stretching out in front of him. He talks eagerly of giving back to the game that has brought him riches and glory.

“We’re not just cricketers, we’re all entertainers. Every time I go out on the field I want to give full value for money. I see myself as a performer with a responsibility. I mean you can’t live your life on “what if”, you just can’t, otherwise why bother.”

“Anyway I’ve gotta go mate, I am meeting some of the footie guys. Guess I’ll see you at the World Cup.” Eh' But you’re injured, and badly, I thought.

“Got to stay positive mate, always stay positive.”

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